The miraculous 100 years: 1950-2050
A remarkably informative and thought-provoking program titled “Humanity from Space” appeared July 21 on PBS. If you missed it, I highly recommend that you view it at http://tinyurl.com/SundinPBSvid. Today’s column has been inspired in part by that program.
It started with the statement that our current civilization originated with the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago, which enabled humanity to abandon its roving hunter-gather lifestyle and settle in permanent communities. But then lifestyle changed little until the middle of the 18th century, except for a steady, but slow, growth in world population to a little over half a billion. The horse was the fastest way of moving goods and information, and the primary sources of power were horses and oxen.
In the late 1700s James Watt invented the double-acting condensing steam engine, which successfully converted heat from the burning of wood or coal into mechanical energy, giving birth to the Industrial Revolution. Railroads using steam-powered portable engines soon appeared, making possible rapid and massive long-distance transportation.
Starting in the mid-1800s, petroleum became increasingly available as a liquid fuel, leading to the invention of internal combustion engines, which made automobiles and airplanes possible. This was followed in the latter 1800s by the invention of electric generators and transformers allowing the transmission of power over great distances. Everything was now in place for the technological world we are privileged to live in. The modern age really began around 1900, when the world population was approaching 1 billion.
Since then the net result of over a century of massive technological advances created by human ingenuity and improvisation, which seem to come at an ever-increasing rate (e.g. Moore’s Law), has been an unprecedented increase in food and energy production and communication ability. This has supported an explosive growth in the world’s population from 1 billion in 1904 to 7 billion in 2011. Between 1960 and 1999 (just 39 years) world population doubled.
But what has it taken to support this population growth and the luxurious lifestyle of the estimated one-third of the population with incomes high enough to afford it? World coal consumption has risen more than 10-fold since 1900 to 9 billion short tons in 2012; petroleum consumption has increased nearly 300-fold in the same period to 27 billion barrels. World population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and energy demand is expected to possibly double due to the increased prosperity of China and India. At these rates the world’s petroleum reserves will be depleted by 2055 and coal reserves before 2100. Obviously the world cannot continue on the present course.
So what can mankind do to avert this looming crisis? The PBS program suggests harvesting more solar and wind power. But let’s get realistic. Are there enough resources (including critical rare earth metals) to construct the millions of square miles of solar panels that will be needed, and the batteries to supply the entire demand when the sun isn’t shining? And we are already running short on water, and also arable land, millions of acres of which will be submerged by rising sea levels and occupied by displaced populations.
Without petroleum, how will we fly airplanes, power 2 billion automobiles and trucks, and run farm machinery without which we will not be able to feed 7-9 billion people? Petroleum is also essential for the production of vital products like fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, plastics, detergents, synthetic fibers, synthetic rubber (for tires), pharmaceuticals, and many other products. We should be saving our petroleum for those uses instead of burning it up.
We pride ourselves on having the technology to improve our future lives by focusing on the cause of any problems that confront us and coming up with the solutions. So why, in the face of a burgeoning population, have we been focusing only on the problems being created by an increasing population, while ignoring the cause — too many people? We should have adopted population control measures starting at least 50 years ago.
In the years since 1950, people in the industrialized nations have been enjoying a standard of living made possible by abundant energy (especially petroleum) which is far above anything mankind has ever known and will ever know again. When there is no more petroleum and plentiful energy, humanity will have no choice but to revert to a pre-Industrial Revolution style of life, and the population the world can support will probably not exceed 2 billion — not a pretty picture.
Hal Sundin’s “As I See It” column appears on the first Thursday of the month.
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